The wonderful Anthony Trollope
If you asked the question who was the greatest Victorian novelist the standard answer would probably be Charles Dickens or George Elliott. I would rest a case, however, that the prize should go to Anthony Trollope, a literary favourite of mine since, following some excellent television adaptations in the 1970s, I first read one of his novels. This year I decided to return to his work and, once again, have not been disappointed.
Trollope writes about two subjects: Love and Politics (with both a large and small P). He sees both subjects through the lenses of class and wealth which were so fundamental to Victorian lives including his own. This is middle class literature. Trollope does not have the interest in wider social issues in the way in which Dickens does. That may, in part, account for why he has somewhat faded from view in modern times. Nonetheless, Trollope is writer of deep psychological insight who has much to tell us about universal aspects of the human condition as well illuminating in detail the anxieties and foibles of his own age.
Trollope was a prolific writer but is probably best known for two series of novels he wrote across the 1860s and 1870s: the Barchester Chronicles, at the centre of which are the clerical intrigues of the Barchester diocese(inspired by Salisbury), its weak Bishop and his authoritarian and scheming wife Mrs Proudie, and the Palliser novels which are acted out on the stage of national politics and in particular of Whig and Liberal politicians including the eponymous Plantagenet Palliser and the young Irish hero of two of the novels Phineas Finn. Both series cover a network of stories and characters which appear and reappear across different novels.
Trollope’s own life is an interesting one and he wrote an accessible and entertaining autobiography which is still available today. He was born to a privileged family but his father made a total hash of his career and the family’s finances. The young Trollope suffered from the family’s lack of resources, was very unhappy at the schools he attended, thought about taking his own life and consoled himself by living in imaginary worlds of his own creation. His mother Fanny, was a larger than life figure who herself became a writer. The family had to live abroad for a period in the 1830s to escape their debts.
Trollope, in the end, became an official at the Post Office. For a while that was n’t successful but a stint of a duty in Ireland made his name and in time he rose to a fairly senior position. Amongst his achievements at the Post Office is reputedly the invention of the pillar box.
In Ireland Trollope started to write. His autobiography describes his routine, rising very early to pen several thousand words each day before attending to his day job. The Barchester novels established his reputation and by 1867 he had made enough money from his writing to be able to resign from the Post Office.
Trollope’s writing is liked a well baked Victoria Sponge, well-formed and delicious but also light and easy to digest and peppered with humour. His characters, even those, such as Mr Quintus Slide the unscrupulous editor of the People’s Banner, who are written with a touch of stereotype and caricature, are plausible and compelling. Trollope’s heroes and heroines are attractive and likeable but never perfect, their very human faults, adding to the psychological realism of his stories. In the same way we are usually left with some sympathy for the bad guys.
Trollope’s writing focuses on people and conversations and these are the drivers of his plots. While he uses many different locations for his stories they are not drawn into his narratives in the same was as in Dickens novels where place as well as people shape the flow and impact of the stories.
Trollope does politics well. He understands politicians and the mixture of personal gain and public service which then, and still to this day, motivates them to seek to enter Parliament and gain office. This was an ambition which Trollope himself shared. When he comments on one of his character “It is the highest and most legitimate pride of an Englishman to have the letters MP written after his name” the author is reflecting his own view. Trollope stood, as a Liberal for the seat of Beverley but lost in an election bedevilled with corruption.
Then there is hunting. Trollope was an inveterate fox hunter and cannot resist including a number of fox hunting scenes in his novels. Despite my modern day disapproval of fox hunting I cannot fail to be drawn, by Trollope’s compelling descriptions, into a genuine sense of the excitement of a good run.
The last thing about Trollope’s writing is a warm and engaging sense of optimism. He is an author, who despite some of the unhappiness in his own life, strains to see the best in life, in love and in his fellow mankind. With some of the gloominess in the world at present that’s not a bad world to escape to.